Why Donald Trump is a stronger leader than we might like

by Sebastian Morgner

It’s the World Economic Forum in Davos – and once again, Donald Trump is ruling the headlines. As soon as he tweets something, the whole world gets worked up about it. And his fans rejoice. There is hardly a political actor who is as good at getting people to talk about him as the American president. How come?

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Whether we like it or not: humans are social creatures. As gregarious animals, we are always arranging ourselves into hierarchies and groups, carefully observing the behavior of those we consider leaders, such as the acting president of the USA. Understanding social dynamics is a future compentency of leadership. Use them for your benefit and you will be talked about, receive attention, spark emotion and activate people to help you reach your goals.

Never before have we been exposed to such a flood of stimuli and information as we are today. And unfortunately, the mechanisms in our brain are not always helpful when it comes to handling this flood with ease. In fact, it is an important finding of social research and neurosciences that humans can’t help constantly comparing themselves. We integrate ourselves into communities and are always working to find our role within them.

The more diverse the information is we need to process, the harder it becomes for us to find our place. Especially when there is a lot of uncertainty, humans long for a strong community, clarity and simple answers. And that is exactly what Donald Trump gives his fans: the feeling of being part of a fantastic group that knows right from wrong. In fact, the president of the United States does one thing better than most people: he communicates closely and directly with his followers – all thanks to Twitter..

Have you ever talked about neurotransmitters in connection with leadership? No? Then it’s about time!

When do you ever talk about hormones? M Iaybe when you’re going through puberty or falling in love, during menopause or if you have hypothyroidism. But hormones play a central role in our everyday lives. The word “hormone“ is derived from ancient Greek: the meaning of hormān is to move or excite something. Our brain is like a computer. It processes information we receive via our sensory organs, interprets them and comes to conclusions that serve as the basis for our every day thoughts, actions and decisions.

Where our topic is concerned, neurotransmitters in the brain play a decisive role. These neurochemical substances are responsible for the transmission of information between braincells across the synaptic cleft and thereby influence brain activity.

The fascinating thing is, that regulation of neurotransmitters depends on how people experience and interpret their environment.

Four substances are crucial in this:

Serotonin

Serotonin is colloquially referred to as the „happiness hormone”. It instills in us the will to live, feelings joy and of serenity.It reduces negative feelings and impulsiveness and is the most important neurotransmitter in the battle against depression. It reduces negative feelings and impulsiveness and is the most important neurotransmitter in the battle against depression.

Dopamin

Dopamine is colloquially referred to as the feel-good hormone. It is released when we feel like our actions are contributing to an important greater goal and we are completing small steps towards this goal successfully. Dopamine makes us feel motivated and confident. It plays an important role in our internal reward system and therefore in any addictive behavior.

Social dynamics and interpersonal relations also influence our dopamine activities.

Cortisol

Cortisol Cortisol is the long-term stress hormone. It is connected to feelings of slight aggression, nervousness or reduced attention. Because they keep the body on alert during phases of permanent stress and tap into vital resources, high cortisol levels lead to exhaustion, premature aging and even cognitive decline. If your levels of cortisol are heightened over a long period of time, this increases your risk of depression.

Noradrenalin

Noradrenalin is a neurotransmitter and chemically closely related to adrenalin. It prepares our brain for fast and efficient action in acute situations. It sharpens the senses, heightens attention and helps people to leave their comfort zone as well as rapidly activate energy reserves.

Neurotransmitters have a particularly strong influence on human vitality, our well-being and our ability to think and act.

In this picture, you see a schematic representation of two people in different cognitive states. The person on the left suffers from chronic stress. Her brain is on red alert. It is on the verge of overheating, because too many conflicting thoughts and feelings are running through it at once. The cortisol levels are high. Even simple cognitive tasks now seem like a real challenge to this person.

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The person on the right is in a good and vital state. She feels alive and important and is able to focus on goals and activities she deems important.

Now, the way a person reacts to certain information depends strongly on their personality and attitude towards life.

What releases serotonin and dopamine in Trump’s fans lets his opponents despair. They feel angry about his ignorance and ruthlessness and worry about the future. Either way, his exaggerated messages give him more power over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. This may be a simplified, schematic representation. But being aware of the effects of certain leadership styles on other people is incredibly helpful if you are trying to get people to act out a strategy.

How can leadership use social dynamics to master successfully master transformations?

What goes for Donald Trump on the political stage also applies to managers, CEOs, department heads and team leaders.

The uncertainty on the political stage is mirrored in today’s economic world.

“Let’s face it – we’re all shaking in our boots when we think of digital transformation,”

the tech director of a large financial service provider said a few weeks ago when he met with board members of other companies for a confidential fireside chat. Almost all his colleagues silently nodded their heads.

Digital transformations are massively changing the way organizations work and people work together. In many places, you can feel the latent nervousness and unrest. Many people feel insecure or not qualified enough for the challenges ahead of them or scared of their professional future. This has measurable consequences: mental illnesses have increased by more than 40 % over the last decade. Today, they are the second most common diagnosis group for the inability to work (BKK health report 2018). The sickness costs for mental illnesses alone amount to almost 45 billion euros per year (Federal Statistical Office 2017). But mental capacity is a vital competitive factor in an economy that increasingly depends on the power of innovation and intellectual creation.

If I want to lead, I must find something to counter the omnipresent flood of stimuli and actively work towards people being in a state of mental well-being even in an environment of uncertainty, complexity and conflicting interests. Observable leadership behavior has a strong influence on the levels of stress of the active players.

Serotonin is released,
  • if there is an inspiring and vivid vision
  • if I know my contribution to the greater good
  • if I know my role and my goals and I feel able to reach them autonomously
  • if I feel part of a strong community.

In those cases, I feel like I am part of an important mission, my senses are sharpened, and I feel like an acknowledged member of my “flock”.

Dopamine is released,
  • if I feel like I am on the right path
  • if I learn new things and can widen my field of responsibility
  • if I make a point of celebrating even small successes and feel happy about progress.

That’s what athletes who are preparing for a competition feel like after a successful training session.

Noradrenalin is the so-called stage fever hormone. We experience stage fever when we have to leave our comfort zone for a moment but have a clear concept of how to master the situation.

The way management acts in a company has a direct impact on the hormonal balance of the whole organization. That’s why some companies are positively paralyzed during phases of transition, while others practically brim over with positive energy.

If management retreats to the ivory tower with external consultants during important phases of transformation and develops a new strategy without keeping the employees posted, they feel excluded, threatened and powerless. Uncertainty, rumors and speculation put the entire organization in a state of permanent stress. The brain prepares the body for a long fight full of privation. We become nervous, feel discouraged and see ourselves as victims of circumstance. On the other hand, if management involves its employees from the start, delivers regular updates and invites everybody to offer suggestions and share their perspective, they will feel like active participants. It will be less about proclaiming hasty solutions or trying to suit everybody.

The approach is more important than the result: it is about actively asking colleagues about their evaluations and ideas and showing them appreciation.  Then collective thinking will concern itself with the questions asked by management despite all the worries. This fosters constructive dialogue. Levels of serotonin and dopamine will rise, because the employees will feel like they are contributing to something and are improving the organization’s sustainability in small steps. This feeling of empowerment is a positive force against the chronic stress that possibly can’t be avoided.

Agile philosophy takes into account many scientific findings on how to put people into a state of motivation: it places great value on a common vision, specific, desirable goals, clear roles and transparent processes. All those factors support a positive impact of the work environment on perception and therefore the hormonal balance of those involved. Agile leadership is a crucial competency that prepares organizations for the future challenges of the digital age.

That is how you can get people to act, even if your name is not Donald Trump.

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About the autor:

Sebastian Morgner

Sebastian Morgner is Co-Founder and Partner of MLI. As an expert for leadership and strategy development, he supports management teams in clarifying and activating important strategic content. He is fascinated by the question of how goals and strategies reach the minds of actors and trigger consistent action. Kontakt: s.morgner@leadership-munich.org